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Torah Sparks

September 13, 2008 – 13 Elul 5768

Annual: Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19 (Etz Hayim, p. 1112; Hertz p. 840)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 21:10 – 23:7 (Etz Hayim, p. 1112; Hertz p. 840)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 10 (Etz Hayim, p. 1138; Hertz p. 857)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Differing systems of enumeration find 72 or 74 of the Torah’s mitzvot – more than 10 percent of the 613 – in this parasha. It opens with three difficult laws – the treatment of a woman captured in war, the rights of a firstborn son of an unloved wife, and the punishment of a “wayward and defiant” son.

A person must return lost property to its owner and must help someone trying to raise a fallen animal. Men and women may not wear clothing associated with the other gender. A person must shoo away the mother bird before taking eggs or chicks from her nest. The roof of a house must have a parapet or railing. Mixtures – of different types of seeds in a single field, of an ox and an ass yoked together, or wool and linen in a single cloth – are prohibited.

A man who marries a woman and then falsely claims she was not a virgin is flogged, fined, and forbidden to divorce her. If the claim is true, the woman is put to death. Adulterers, both male and female, are to be put to death. Laws concerning rape are given. The Torah names those who may not be “admitted into the congregation of the Lord.”

Laws concerning impurity and hygiene in military camps are given. A runaway slave must not be returned to his master. Cult prostitution is forbidden. Jews may not take interest on loans made to fellow Jews. A person must fulfill his or her vows. A man is permitted to divorce his wife. Laws concerning collateral on loans are given.

No one may oppress the powerless – poor laborers, strangers, widows, and orphans. The rituals of yibum, Levirite marriage, and halitzah, the ritual carried out by a man who does not wish to marry his dead brother’s childless widow, are given. A person may use or own only completely honest weights and measures.

We are commanded to remember Amalek.

1. Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers?

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. (Devarim 22:1-3)

  1. If someone returns the beast and it runs away again, and when he once more returns it, it runs away a second time, even if this goes on five times, he must return it each time, as it is said, you must take it back to your fellow [hasheiv t’shiveim, with the verb doubled]. If he [the finder] brings it back to a place where others can see it, and it is stolen or lost, the responsibility is still his. The responsibility remains his until he restores it to the possession of its owner. (Sifre [a collection of Midrash halakha], Piska 222)
  2. A man who finds Torah scrolls must read them at least once every 30 days – if he cannot read, he must roll them open and reroll them... A man who finds a garment must give it a shaking at least once every 30 days, and spread it out [to be aired] to preserve it, but not to enhance his own status. Silver and copper vessels may be used, so that they [do not tarnish but] remain fit – not, however, in such a manner as to wear them out. Gold and glassware may not be touched until Elijah comes. If a man finds a sack, a basket, or any other object it is beneath his dignity to pick it up, he need not pick it up. (Baba Metziah 29b)
  3. [Y]ou must not remain indifferent [literally, you may not hide yourself]. Why did the Torah not use here the imperative form, as with all the other commandments? Why does it use “may”? A person without integrity who finds a lost article could say: It is beneath my dignity to deal with restoration of the lost article to its owner. I will pretend that I have not seen it. Be it known, therefore, that “you may not hide yourself.” Even if you hide yourself from other people, you may not hide yourself from the Holy One before Whom all mysteries stand revealed. (Simcha Raz, “The Torah’s Seventy Faces: Commentaries on the Weekly Sidrah, edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, p. 363)
  4. Rabbi Yohanan said, “there are three whose merit the Holy One proclaims every day... and a poor person who returns a lost object to its owner. (Pesachim 113a)
  5. The root reason for this precept is evident, because in this lies a useful benefit for all and harmony for the land, since forgetfulness is common in all [humans]; moreover, all their domestic and other animals always run off hither and thither. With this mitzvah, which exists among our people, animals and objects would be kept wherever they might be in our holy land as though they were under the hand of the owners. (Sefer HaHinukh [attributed to Rabbi Aharon of Barcelona, 13th century, Spain])

Sparks for Discussion

The mitzvah of returning lost property is not passive. One must care for the property actively (whether it is living creatures or objects) and actively try to find the owner. Why is it important that people make an effort to return lost property? Sefer HaHinukh sees in this mitzvah “a useful benefit for all and harmony for the land.” What does he mean by this? How would it affect society if people were diligent about returning lost property? If, alternatively, everyone practiced “finders, keepers”? Have you ever happened upon a lost object? What did you do about it? In what ways would everyone returning lost property affect the land?

2. I’ll Fly Away

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. (Devarim 22:6-7)

  1. If (as a reward for the observance of) an easy commandment connected with which there is no monetary loss the Torah has said, in order that you may fare well and have a long life – how much greater will be the reward (for the observance) of commandments that are more difficult. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai taught: The Holy One has revealed the reward for heeding two precepts in the Torah: one of these precepts is the least onerous, and the other is the most onerous. The least onerous concerns letting the mother go when chancing on a bird’s nest – with regard to it, the Torah promises in order that you may fare well and have a long life. The most onerous concerns honoring one’s father and mother – with regard to it also, the Torah promises “that you may long endure and that you may fare well.” (D’varim 5:16) So the two precepts are alike in the reward received in this world for their observance. (Tanhuma [a Midrash collection] Eikev 2)
  3. Why should the reward for the observance of this one commandment be so great?... Because the observance of this commandment symbolizes the repudiation of selfishness. The root of all evil and sin in this world, be it in the rearing of children, in the worship of God, or in the relations between man and man, is egotism, the failure on the part of the individual to set aside his own concerns and personal interests for the sake of the common welfare, of an ideal, or of spiritual perfection. Financial considerations on the part of parents may deprive children of an education in the spirit of the Torah, and lust for honor or gain make for strife, jealousy, hate, and many other evils. But once men will be able to set aside their personal interests for the sake of an ideal, of a great cause, there will be a thoroughgoing change for the better in all aspects of life... This is the moral lesson taught us by the observance of the commandment to send away the mother bird before taking the young from their nest. You may have captive in your hands the large mother bird and could use her for food or other personal gain. But the law of the Torah commands you to consider the welfare of others and send her away so that she should be able to produce more young and the species should not become extinct. (Avnei Ezel [Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman, 1897-1943, Poland])
  4. This also is an explanatory commandment of the prohibition “No animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young” (Vayikra 22:28), because the reason for both is that we should not have a cruel heart and be without compassion, or it may be that the Torah does not permit us to destroy a species altogether, although it permits slaughter [for food] within that group. Now, he who kills the mother and the young in one day or takes them when they are free to fly is considered as though he cut off that species. (Ramban [Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain])

Sparks for Discussion

Rashi and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (in the Tanhuma) draw different conclusions from the reward promised for sending away the mother bird – Rashi learns that the reward for other mitzvot must be even greater; Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai concludes that the reward for all mitzvot is the same. With whom do you agree? Why? Do you believe that we are or will be rewarded for the mitzvot we do?

Avnei Ezel believes that the underlying reason for this commandment is to combat selfishness. He also mentions that it promotes the welfare of others by preventing the extinction of species. Ramban makes the same point about preserving species. Can you think of other ways in which the Torah urges us to care for the environment? Are you making an effort to become more “green” in your home, workplace, and shul? Is there a reason beyond self-interest that we must care for the world around us?

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